It’s well established that the 1950s was a decade of enormous change on many fronts. It’s especially true within the narrower context of popular music, from the growth of rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues and country music, as well as how those musical genres influenced each other, and society in general.
All these years later, the music of the decade still means a lot to people. That’s the subject behind “Flashback to the 50s,” this year’s effort from that talented group of seniors known as The Mature Mob. Since their first show in 1992, the Mob has provided an outlet for singers, dancers and comics aged 50 and over, and raised well over a quarter of a million dollars to benefit Senior Services of Central Illinois.
The idea for the 50s theme initially came from longtime Mobster Celeste Costa. The Mob Board approved it, and from there, tapped another Mob veteran, Herb DeFreese, to direct. It was a good choice, not just because of his previous tenure with the group, but because of his long musical career.
Herb has spent more than 20 years on the road as a singer and guitarist, often playing six nights a week, accompanied for much of that time by his wife. Herb recalls, “Bonnie spent the first seven years with me, playing keyboard for about a year, then became a dancer.” Those years of one-nighters found them sharing the program with such varied performers as Count Basie, the Ink Spots, Tommy James, Del Shannon and the Lettermen. He’s also opened many events, including two Chicago Cubs games, with his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Both DeFreeses are playing guitar in this year’s show, in addition to a couple of vocal turns, including a duet. “You Got What It Takes” was first made famous by Brook Benton and Dinah Washington. They’re part of a five-piece band backing up the Mob singers.
Gus Pflugmacher’s longtime “day job” was as an accountant, most notably chief accountant for the Illinois treasurers’ office, as well as operating his own tax and accounting service. His musical experience spans 50 years, and currently has him with three different bands: the “Salt N’ Pepper Band,” the “Three Tenors,” a nine-piece orchestra featuring three tenor saxophones, and an 18-piece Big Band Orchestra. In “Flashback,” Gus plays the sax and has two numbers, the instrumental “Tequila” and the vocal “Unchained Melody.”
Where Herb and Gus have both fronted their own bands over the years, Dennis Darling’s musical experience has been almost entirely as a solo act. He calls this year’s Mob show, in which he plays keyboard, “my very first attempt at being ‘piano guy’ in the house band, and I’m finding it to be a most enjoyable challenge.”
His website (www.myonlymessage.com) has the following concise account of his career: “Started making music in 1968. Still at it.” His musical activity has stepped up since his “retirement from institutional housekeeping in 2015,” and includes Theatre in the Park, the Springfield Theater Center and the Hoogland Center for the Arts. He plays many dates around Springfield.
Barb Grissom is making her first appearance with the Mob in this year’s show, but her musical experience goes back much further. For a number of years, she and her husband performed at the various “country oprys” that used to dot central Illinois, in places such as Murrayville, the New Salem Country Opry in Petersburg, and the late Nashville North in Taylorville. He was an emcee while Barb sang, and they did skits, in addition to backing up the performers who headlined. “Marty Robbins was one of the nicest ones,” she recalls.
New Salem attracted some tourist business, but the other locations drew mostly from a local fan base, one heavily weighted towards an older audience, which Barb feels led to their eventual closing. Self-taught on guitar, Barb accompanies herself on one of her numbers, the Brenda Lee classic “Sweet Nothin’s.”
The show’s lineup is a small sample of the diverse array of songs from the decade. The opening number, “Rock Around the Clock,” was the first rock ’n’ roll song to reach the top of the charts in 1955, and is one of several such songs in the show. Ballads are well represented by the likes of “My Prayer,” “Only You,” “My Special Angel” and “Dream, Lover.” The decade was also a big one for novelty songs, and this show has several, among them “Purple People Eater,” “Chantilly Lace” and “Alley Oop.”
But the real stars are the old-timers who, as they have from the Mature Mob’s first days, are raising money for Senior Services’ activities, as well as getting a chance to entertain. Dennis describes it well. Working with the Mob, he says, “has been a pleasure and a blessing to me in the way that we older adults can be honest and caring with one another, the inhibitions and anxieties of youth having mostly departed from us...leaving us with deep gratitude for life’s simple pleasures and a lively sense of humor with which to gird ourselves against the vagaries of time and misfortune.”
In my decade-plus as part of the Mob, I’ve found its cast members to have a spark to them, as talented people usually do. Not content to spend their “golden years” in the proverbial rocking chair, they’re clearly having fun, and hope to draw the audience in as well.
Tickets and showtimes
The Mature Mob presents “Flashback to the 50s,” with shows Friday, Sept. 7, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 8, at 2 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 9, at 2 p.m., at the Sacred Heart-Griffin Auditorium, 1200 W. Washington. Tickets are $15, with children 12 and under admitted free. Tickets are available at Senior Services of Central Illinois, 701 W. Mason St., by phone at 528-4035 or at the door. Proceeds benefit Senior Services of Central Illinois.
Will Burpee is a freelance writer and occasional singer and actor. This year’s Mature Mob show is his 12th.